The Coming Recession

Seven observers debate the (sorry) state of the economy.


As this issue of reason goes to press, the dollar is at a record low against the euro, oil is more than $100 a barrel, consumer prices are up 4 percent from a year ago, and Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke is cutting interest rates so often that the guys at the office have taken to calling him Edward Scissorhands. The subprime mortgage fallout has yet to finish wreaking its havoc, Bear Stearns is holding on by the skin of its teeth, and the government's bucket may not be big enough for all the bailouts under way. Gloomy faces dominate CNBC and the Fox Business Channel, muttering long-forgotten terms like inflation and recession.

President George W. Bush, by contrast, is relatively cheery, conceding that we are in "challenging times" but arguing that "our financial institutions are strong" and the capital markets "functioning efficiently and effectively." "In the long run," Bush said in a March 17 White House address, "our economy is going to be fine." And some statistics back up the sunny view: Unemployment is still at a low 5.1 percent, and productivity remains high.

Presidential hopefuls are offering a variety of explanations and possible solutions for what 42 percent of voters say is the most important issue to them, according to a recent CNN poll. At a March 20 rally, Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) suggested the problem was a combination of "special interests" and war: "At a time when we're on the brink of recession, when neighborhoods have 'For Sale' signs outside every home, and working families are struggling to keep up with rising costs, ordinary Americans are paying a price for this war." Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) took a different tack: The "economic crisis is, at its core, a housing crisis," she said in a major Philadelphia address on March 24, but she cited other factors as well, including Bush's "brain dead energy policy." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) won the Republican nomination without really talking much about the economy.

How will we know when it's fair to speak the dreaded r-word? In general, a recession is defined as a decline in a country's gross domestic product for two or more successive quarters. In the United States, an official pronouncement is required from the professional doom diagnosticians on the business-cycle dating committee of the National Bureau of Economic Research, who often take other aspects of an ailing economy into account. GDP growth slowed dramatically at the end of 2007 and is projected to be zero in the second quarter of 2008, so we look to be well on our way.

As oil prices continued to climb and housing prices continued to slide, Reason assembled a panel of economists and other market watchers to help make sense of the headlines, point some fingers, figure out how we got where we are, and offer advice about how to get out with our wallets intact.

Blame the Fed
Gerald P. O'Driscoll Jr.
The U.S. economy is in the midst of an old-style credit crunch brought on by a combination of bad policies and incredibly lax underwriting standards at financial institutions. The biggest policy failure was the decision by Alan Greenspan's Federal Reserve to hold interest rates too low for too long. That led to a tsunami of credit that inundated the economy with cheap money. Mortgage lenders in particular were flush with funds and searched for deals wherever they could be found. Heretofore unqualified borrowers suddenly "qualified" as underwriting standards relaxed and then disappeared.

Egged on by statements from Chairman Greenspan, market participants came to believe the era of low interest rates would last indefinitely. But the era did come to an end as the Fed was forced to begin raising interest rates. Faced with the prospect of paying higher rates on their mortgages in the future, borrowers began defaulting. First home prices stopped rising, and then home prices began dropping—precipitously in some overheated housing markets. Now we are approximately six months into a new cycle of lower interest rates, but with no end in sight to the crunch.

At least two other factors stoked the crisis. First, many exotic financial products were issued whose value was tied in one way or another to home prices and the value of the securities into which home mortgages were bundled, such as collateralized mortgage obligations. The pricing of these financial products was the product of complex economic models, not the outcome of market transactions. As the value of the underlying homes and mortgages declined, pricing of the financial exotica became nearly impossible. As we learned in the collapse of Long Term Capital Management, these pricing models fail precisely when their accuracy is most important—in times of financial turbulence. The inability to price the financial products has exacerbated losses among the firms holding them.

There is a wonderful parallel here to the collapse of the Soviet Union. As the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises argued almost 100 years ago, central planning inevitably fails because there are no market prices to allocate resources. Market prices can only be the outcome of actual market transactions among buyers and sellers. Planners used mathematical formulas to value resources, especially capital. Now Wall Street wizards have imported Soviet thinking to allocate financial capital. Is it any wonder that it failed?

The second factor contributing to the housing market collapse was the federal government's commitment to "affordable housing." Lenders, especially Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, were pressured into promoting housing to low-income groups that could not qualify for normal loans. That policy is predicated on the belief that there is an underserved group of people who, but for economic discrimination or some other market failure, would be homeowners. That social goal and the credit-driven desire for more deals merged into mortgages made without adequate collateral.

We learned two lessons from the drive to make home ownership available to the heretofore underserved. First, many of these were not homeowners because they could not afford a home. Only under the temporary "hothouse" conditions in mortgage markets did they seem to qualify. Second, people who have no equity in their homes cannot meaningfully be said to be owners. When times turn tough, they will walk away. They were effectively renters, not homeowners.

The crisis will end when housing markets hit bottom and the prices of mortgage securities stabilize. Banks also need to unwind their positions in exotic financial derivatives.

The Fed needs to understand it is facing a capital crisis, not a liquidity crisis. The very low interest rates on safe assets show there is ample liquidity in financial markets. The Fed should not supply capital. That is the job of markets, and they are doing it.

Gerald P. O'Driscoll Jr., formerly a vice president and economic adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, is a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

No Hoofing to Hooverville
Megan McArdle
Just one thing puzzles me about the race to the White House: Why would anyone want to get there? I know that being crowned prettiest girl at the prom is the great lasting rejoinder to everyone who made fun of you in middle school, but given the economic condition of the country, the next four years seem like a rotten time to reign.

Ignore the econopundits making comparisons to the 1930s. While the parallels are striking, we are missing the key ingredient in the onset of the Great Depression: tight Fed policy that caused the money supply to shrink by 25 percent. You can put away that bindle and push the apple cart back in the garage.

But if we're not exactly hoofing it to Hooverville, we nonetheless face one hell of a rough patch. Record high oil prices, surpassing even the momentous spikes of the 1970s, have brought with them another piece of '70s memorabilia: stagflation. Federal Reserve bankers are faced with an extremely unpalatable choice. They can tighten up the money supply to combat inflation, at the cost of making the probable recession even deeper. Or they can hang loose and watch inflation march upward while the economy does God knows what. With the credit markets broken, the Fed may end up losing its hard-won credibility as an inflation fighter while producing only marginal benefits to growth.

The president has no control over any of this, but that won't stop people from blaming him anyway. He will also almost certainly have to come up with some regulatory scheme for increasing transparency and accountability in the vast new financial markets that have been created by the securitization of loans during the last 30 years. It will be a tough order to give investors better information without strangling valuable financial innovation.

But by far his biggest quandary will be the budget. Obama (who I assume will be the Democratic nominee) wants a big new health care entitlement; John McCain wants even more tax cuts. Both will be frustrated by adverse budget math. The economic slowdown is going to cut into tax revenues, and most economists agree that a recession is not a good time to raise taxes—nay, not even on "the rich." Meanwhile, the baby boomers are about to start retiring, turning Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid into the sucking chest wound of the federal budget. Assurances that the trust fund won't run out until 2042 notwithstanding, the president will have to start coping with Medicare deficits as soon as next year, and a falling Social Security surplus soon thereafter. All this will be compounded by the slowdown in GDP growth made inevitable by declining labor force participation and service-intensive elder care.

Any future president should be panicking. That doesn't mean the rest of us should. At the end of the day, America has the most flexible and resilient economy in the world. We'll pull through somehow, although a lot of us won't be very happy in the process. But least happy of all will be the president—the bum we get to throw out when things don't go our way.

Megan McArdle blogs about economics at The Atlantic.

First, Do No (More) Harm

Ron Paul
This nation is facing an economic crisis the likes of which have not been seen in several generations. It is crucial that we take to heart the lesson that should have been learned after the Great Depression, which is that the central bank should do nothing.

I have been writing and speaking for years about the dangers of the Federal Reserve, but the importance of the actions of the Fed in laying the groundwork for the downturn in the business cycle pales in comparison to the damage done by actions the Fed takes once the downturn arrives. At the first sign of crisis, even with growing inflation, the Fed began to further inflate, lowering interest rates, stepping up open market operations, and injecting liquidity. World markets, already jittery, see these steps as affirmations of their worst fears and react accordingly by selling assets denominated in smoke-and-mirrors fiat currency and fleeing to the solid value of gold, oil, and commodities.

Every action the Fed takes sends a signal that the U.S. dollar will continue to be inflated and therefore debased, which is why the correct action is no action at all. Lower interest rates and liquidity injections are viewed with alarm by foreign markets, while higher interest rates and money tightening are anathema to many domestic investors. The Fed is between a rock and a hard place, and its insistence on inflating the money supply to manage the brittle economy will likely be our undoing.

Until we realize that the Federal Reserve system itself is flawed, and until we recognize that no one economic maestro or committee of economic experts can set prices and plan the economy, this nation will continue to flounder about in an economic malaise. Ending that may take a much more serious downturn than anything we've seen yet. It is beyond doubt that our economy is in recession, and the only rational response is for the government to allow malinvested resources to liquidate so that we can return to a stable economy.

While the Fed should take a hands-off approach, Congress should aggressively cut taxes and spending and repeal regulations that stifle economic growth, such as the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. This country has enormous economic potential, an industrious work force, and an enviable history of innovation and entrepreneurship. If the government would learn from its past mistakes and abstain from further interference, we could get back on a solid footing and grow to our full potential.

My fear is that the Fed will continue with its policy of inflation and Congress will be pressured to continue to stimulate the economy with government spending, probably extending to even more outright taxpayer-funded bailouts of financial institutions, subprime mortgages, and government-sponsored enterprises that are "too big to fail." These debt-funded efforts reward the recklessness of some institutions at the expense of the productive sectors of our economy. Until the federal government acts to extricate itself from intervention in the markets, economic activity will be hindered and true recovery will not take place.

Rep. Ron Paul (R-Texas) is a nine-term congressman and a candidate for the Republican presidential nomination.

The Vicious Ethanol Cycle
Robert Bryce
I see three big dangers to the global economy: the ongoing fallout from the mortgage mess, rising energy prices, and rising food prices. That last item is the most maddening, because surging food prices are largely the result of the ethanol scam.

As U.S. ethanol distilleries vacuum up ever increasing quantities of corn, and corn takes up an ever larger percentage of arable land, prices for all types of food are skyrocketing. During the last two years, corn prices have more than doubled and soybean prices have nearly tripled. In 2007 food prices in the U.S. increased by nearly 5 percent. Bill Lapp, of the Omaha-based research firm Advanced Economic Solutions, told The Boston Globe in March that he expects food prices to increase at an annual rate of 7.5 percent for the next five years.

Because of mandates requiring gasoline producers to mix ethanol with their fuel, 20 percent of the U.S. corn crop in 2006—about 2.1 billion bushels—was diverted into ethanol production. By 2009, according to the National Corn Growers Association, about one-third of the expected crop—some 4 billion bushels—will be used to make motor fuel. And those projections were made in April 2007, eight months before Congress passed the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which requires the consumption of 36 billion gallons of ethanol by 2020, a fivefold increase over current levels.

The far-reaching economic impact of ethanol mandates is already being felt. In early 2007, tens of thousands of people marched in the streets of Mexico City to protest the rising cost of tortillas, an increase that Mexico's secretary of economy, Eduardo Sojo, blamed on American corn ethanol production. In March of this year, Pilgrim's Pride, the world's largest poultry processor, shuttered a plant in Siler City, North Carolina, and fired 1,100 workers. Company CEO Clint Rivers laid the blame squarely on the ethanol mandates, predicting that "there is much more to come" in the way of food price increases. "We're spending our tax dollars to raise the price of our food to subsidize the ethanol industry," he said.

Congressional meddling in the energy market has created what Lester Brown, the president of the Earth Policy Institute, calls an "epic competition" between "the world's supermarkets and its service stations." Therein lies the perversity of ethanol mandates: As the global economy heads for rougher times, food prices are soaring. And those prices will increase anxiety among consumers, who will further reduce their discretionary spending. Congress has created a negative feedback loop that will reverberate for years to come.

Robert Bryce is the managing editor of Energy Tribune. His latest book is Gusher of Lies: The Dangerous Delusions of "Energy Independence" (PublicAffairs).

War Is the Health of the Civilian State
Robert Higgs
Adam Smith famously observed that there is "a great deal of ruin in a nation"—that is, nations can take a lot of abuse. Let's hope he was right, because the George W. Bush administration has taken a great many actions during the past seven years that contribute to economic ruin.

Much of the White House's faulty economic policy can be traced to its wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, especially the latter because it has been larger, costlier, and more diverting. I use the word diverting deliberately to emphasize that the government's military adventures in southwest Asia have served to draw the public's attention away from economic measures that otherwise would have attracted more notice and hence more resistance.

One reason war is always associated with especially rapid growth in the size, scope, and power of the state is that it focuses people's attention on what is seen as the most urgent matter, so they simply don't notice what the government is doing in other areas. Another reason is that during wartime many people increase their broad support for the government and are less inclined to challenge its actions even when those actions have little or nothing to do with the war.

Hardly anyone was surprised that real military spending (measured in accordance with the government's own narrow definition) increased by almost 60 percent between 2000 and 2007, compared to real GDP growth of 18 percent during that time. Note, however, that the government's real nondefense outlays increased concurrently by more than 24 percent—an increase one-third greater than that of GDP. When people let down their guard in "supporting the troops," they permit the government to make greater headway in its ceaseless quest to enlarge spending in a wide range of areas, many of them strictly civilian in nature.

The administration has partially concealed the burden of its spending binge by resorting to deficit finance. Federal debt held by the public increased by 49 percent between the end of fiscal 2000 and the end of fiscal 2007—a 24 percent increase after adjusting for inflation. To facilitate this surge in public borrowing, the Federal Reserve engineered a 40 percent increase in the monetary base, easing credit conditions in the commercial banking sector. The real estate bubble (now bursting) and the substantial depreciation of the dollar's international exchange value are but two of the consequences of these reckless, war-spawned fiscal and monetary policies.

In view of the plunging stock market, my guess is that the current recession—in which many of the easy-credit-induced malinvestments of the past seven years are being liquidated by means of write-offs, loan defaults, bankruptcies, and other asset forfeitures—has much further to run. If you like the present worsening economic situation, write the president and your congressional representatives a letter and thank them for their war and their related economic spoliation.

Robert Higgs, a senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute, is author of Crisis and Leviathan: Critical Episodes in the Growth of American Government (Oxford University Press) and many other books.

Stagflation or Depression?
Robert E. Wright
The current U.S. economic outlook is as bleak as it was in 1974 or even 1930. Will the economy wither? Or will it just wilt a little before blossoming in a bath of Fed-supplied liquidity? Nobody knows for sure, but I fear the former. Here's why:

  • Our educational system does a poor job of teaching people how to think independently. It always has, but until recently that wasn't a big problem. Today's globalized economy, however, demands ever larger numbers of engineers, doctors, scientists, and sundry creative types. We probably won't create enough independent thinkers until we have school choice at the primary, secondary, and tertiary levels.
  • Thankfully, entrepreneurs abound. They've pulled us out of the economic fire in the past and could do so again. But they are more hamstrung than ever with high, uncertain, and often capricious taxes and regulations that do not appear to be going away anytime soon.
  • Something stinks in our financial system. Six different mortgage securitization schemes blew up between the Civil War and World War II for exactly the same reason that subprime mortgages tanked last year: very poorly designed incentives for mortgage originators. Why don't financiers and their regulators pay more attention to America's rich financial heritage? Their modeling is more sophisticated than ever, but their economic reasoning is not.
  • The national debt is so high ($9.4 trillion, or almost $31,000 per person) that the government must largely rely on monetary stimulus rather than more salubrious fiscal measures, such as permanently cutting taxes. Too much easing by the Fed could lead to 1970s-like inflation and further financial havoc.
  • Urged on in part by the example set by their profligate leaders, Americans wallow in a huge pile of private debt as well. A high level of individual leverage has become a permanent fixture of the nation's landscape. Americans owe so much that to keep growing, financial institutions have to push the margin of safety by making loans on ever thinner collateral and ever weaker covenants. If the economy slows significantly, many more poor-quality loans will hit the proverbial fan. The ensuing mess will stink and take a long time to clean up.

Even if the Federal Reserve manages to save the economy this time, these problems may continue to fester, breeding the next economic catastrophe. Perhaps, though, even greater levels of incompetence in other countries will break our fall.

Robert E. Wright
is the author of One Nation Under Debt: Hamilton, Jefferson and the History of What We Owe (McGraw-Hill) and a curator for the Museum of American Finance. He teaches business, economic, and financial history at New York University's Stern School of Business.

The Only Thing to Fear Is Fear-Driven Government 'Control'
Donald J. Boudreaux
New York Times columnist Gail Collins was underwhelmed by the president's folksy course-things-ain't-great-now-but-we-Americans-with-our-rebate-checks-and-incessant-complaining-about-congressional-earmarks-are-gonna-be-just-fine address to the Economic Club of New York on March 14. She complained that "in times of crisis you would like to at least believe your leader has the capacity to pretend he's in control."

This is the attitude that scares me. I worry not a whit that the subprime crisis or falling share prices will cause long-term economic woe. As unnerving as the current downturn might be today, people in competitive markets always find ways of regaining their economic footing tomorrow. Investors recalibrate their expectations and entrepreneurs redirect their energies to take better advantage of the changing economic landscape. Workers' pay and consumers' standard of living, after blipping briefly downward, resume their upward trend.

"Nonsense!" a chorus yells. "What about the Great Depression? Or the 1970s?" The experiences of these decades are indeed relevant. They are, however, precisely why the clamor for putting someone "in control" of this crisis is so frightening.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, whose strength of empirical support rivals that for the flat-earth hypothesis ("It seems so obvious!"), the massive move toward centralized control of the economy during the administrations of both Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt did not "rescue" Americans from economic hardship. All that FDR's soaring rhetoric and army of officials manning newly created alphabet-soup agencies managed to do was to prolong an economic downturn into America's deepest and longest depression—one that showed no reliable signs of ending until after Roosevelt met his maker. As the economic historian Robert Higgs documents in his 2006 book Depression, War, and Cold War, investors were terrified by the very real risk during the 1930s that government would extend its control over the economy even beyond what it achieved with its New Deal programs.

The 1970s weren't as bad as the 1930s. Most important, there was no serious talk during the '70s of nationalizing industries or socializing investment decisions. International trade was expanding rather than being suffocated by a disco-era Smoot-Hawley tariff. Still, wage and price controls were in vogue (and in effect), Congress and Richard Nixon were keen on command-and-control regulations, and Fed chairmen Arthur Burns' and G. William Miller's control over the money supply was injuriously inflationary. Shot through with so many interventions giving government more "control," the economy slipped into an infamous malaise.

My only fear, therefore, is fear itself—fear that deludes people into believing that giving government greater control is the key to earthly salvation. As I write these words, the Fed's aggressive moves to bail out Bear Stearns and prevent other necessary market corrections—along with increasing public support for protectionism, anti-immigrant nativism, and environmental hysteria—send shivers down my spine. The threat of a long-term crisis is only as real as is the likelihood that government will try to exert more control.

Donald J. Boudreaux
is a professor of economics at George Mason University.